Korea: The First Shot
(Military Sea Transportation Service in Korean War)

By Salvatore R. Mercogliano

In January of 1950, Captain Alexander F. Junker (USN) arrived in Tokyo, Japan to oversee the transfer of Army Transport Service personnel and ships to the newly established Military Sea Transportation Service (MSTS).

Set to take place on July 1, Junker could not anticipate the magnitude of his assignment when six days prior to his assumption of command, forces of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea crossed the 38th parallel and invaded the Republic of Korea.

President Harry S. Truman's decision to commit U.S. forces and to expand the Mutual Defense Assistance Program to South Korea forced Junker, and his fellow MSTS commander on the West Coast, Captain William R. Thayer to divert every possible ship to the Far East to support this effort. Junker immediately ordered the coastal transport USAT Sgt. George D. Keathley and the cargo ship USNS Cardinal O'Connell from their scheduled duties to transport vital ammunition to Pusan.

While the Commander of MSTS, Rear Admiral William M. Callaghan, and his staff coordinated the efforts of his regional deputies, the immediate need was to sealift combat forces to the Korean peninsula to stem the tide of North Korean aggression. Aircraft of the Military Air Transportation Service could not lift the necessary forces and its was up to MSTS, ships of the commercial U.S. merchant marine, and those broken out of the National Defense Reserve Fleet (NDRF) to sustain the United Nation's effort in Korea.

By July 6, 1950, only 11 days after the initial invasion, MSTS was able to deploy the 24th Infantry Division from garrison duty in Japan, to the port of Pusan in South Korea. Two other divisions from Japan, the 25th Infantry and the 1st Cavalry Division were put ashore by the middle of that month.

However, these forces alone proved insufficient and MSTS demonstrated its versatility and capability to the military by deploying the 2d Infantry Division from its home station in Fort Lewis, Washington to Korea, in only 29 days, from July 17 to August 19, 1950. This movement required the use of 10 MSTS troop transports and 11 cargo ships, all but one a commercially chartered ship.

Unloading military cargo in Korea from MSTS-chartered ship
Unloading military cargo in Korea from MSTS-chartered ship

The commercial merchant marine formed the backbone of the bridge of ships across the Pacific. From just 6 ships under charter when the war began, this total peaked at 255. Over 85 percent of all the cargo shipped to Korea by sea came on board U.S. commercial shipping.

To initially fill the urgent shortfall in shipping, MSTS activated ships from the National Defense Reserve Fleet. Some of these ships were utilized as part of the nucleus fleet and crewed by Civil Service merchant mariners. These included 12 transports, 6 cargo ships, 5 escort carriers (outfitted as aircraft transports), and 35 tankers.

Additionally, MSTS was given the responsibility for crewing two hospital ships being deployed to Korea. While undergoing its initial sea trials, and before its full civilian crew could be embarked, the USS Benevolence (T-AH 13) was rammed and sunk by the SS Mary Luckenbach off San Francisco on August 25, 1950. Out of a crew of 505, 23 died including the prospective master of the ship, Captain William "Pineapple Bill" Murray.

Hospital ship USS Benevolence
Hospital ship USS Benevolence (T-AH 13) C4-S-A3

However, the USNS Repose (T-AH 16) did deploy with 168 civilian mariners on board and remained on station till October 28, when a naval crew replaced the merchant mariners. During their 32 days on station, the ship received and treated over 1,200 patients.

In addition to the ships assigned directly to MSTS, 130 laid-up Victory ships in the NDRF were broken out by the Maritime Administration and assigned under time-charters to private shipping firms, for charter to MSTS.

Since the United Nations sanctioned the action in defense of the Republic of Korea, other nations offered troops to serve on the peninsula, but many of them lacked the capability to deploy them, and MSTS served as a conduit. In 1951, the USNS General J. H. McRae, a C-4 "General" class troop transport, that served for MSTS Atlantic, operated between the ports of New York and Bremerhaven.

However with the crisis in Korea, MSTS altered its return voyage, and added several stops. From Bremerhaven, the ship called on the ports of Rotterdam, Piraeus, Djibouti, and finally Pusan where it delivered troops from the Netherlands, Belgium, Greece, and Ethiopia, before returning back to New York with 2,000 veterans, and an additional 1,168 European refugees. All told the McRae sailed over 32,000 miles in 96 days.

Ships of the MSTS not only provided supplies but also served as naval auxiliaries. When the U.S. X Corps went ashore at Inchon in September 1950, 13 USNS cargo ships, 26 chartered American, and 34 Japanese-manned merchant ships, under the operational control of MSTS, participated in the invasion.

Loading supplies during evacuation of Hungnam, Korea South Korean troops boarding evacuation ship at Hungnam, Korea
Loading supplies during evacuation of Hungnam, Korea South Korean troops boarding evacuation ship at Hungnam, Korea

A few months later, merchant shipping again provided yeoman service by evacuating the same troops from the ports of Hungnam and Wonsan, following the intervention of the People's Republic of China into the conflict.

In an operation reminiscent of Dunkirk, 193 ship loads rescued 105,000 U.N. troops; 91,000 refugees; 350,000 MT of cargo; and 17,500 vehicles from encirclement and delivered them to the port of Pusan.

One ship in particular, the SS Meredith Victory under the command of Leonard P. La Rue, activated from the NDRF, operated by Moore-McCormick Lines, and licensed to carry 12 passengers, transported over 14,000 refugees in one single voyage. First mate D. S. Savastio, with nothing but first aid training, delivered five babies during the three-day passage to Pusan. Ten years later, the Maritime Administration honored the crew by awarding them a Gallant Ship Award.

Korean refugees aboard SS Meredith Victory December 1950
Some of 14,000 Korean refugees aboard SS Meredith Victory in December 1950

The effects of the Korean War remain with the Military Sealift Command. Realizing the limitations of the World War II Maritime Commission-built fleet of merchant ships, Admiral Edward L. Cochrane initiated a program to foster ship construction in the U.S. and oversaw the design and building of 35 Mariner-class freighters. One of these ships, the ex-SS Empire State Mariner, is still in operation as the USNS Observation Island.

Mariner Class freighter C4-S-1a
Mariner Class freighter C4-S-1a

To alleviate fears within the commercial industry that MSTS did not intend to federalize the Merchant Marine, the Wilson-Weeks Act of July 1, 1954 limited the size of the nucleus fleet and established the priority by which shipping, particularly those in the NDRF and foreign-flags, could be obtained. Finally, the Cargo Preference Act of 1954 required that at least 50 percent of all government-owned or financed cargo be moved aboard commercially owned U.S. flag ships.

Military Sea Transportation Service's first test of fire, coming only nine months after its initial activation vindicated the concept of a unified sealift service under the Department of Defense.

In three years, MSTS transported more than 54 million measurement tons of cargo, nearly 5 million troops and passengers, and over 22 million long tons of petroleum. While these figures are impressive, the ships of the U.S. merchant marine and the MSTS continued to ply all the world's oceans. To Europe sailed cargo for the Marshall Plan, the Economic Cooperation Administration (ECA), and four U.S. divisions to partake in the new North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Into the Arctic and Antarctic, ships carried cargo to construct bases at Little America, Thule, and the Distant Early Warning Line. In 1951 MSTS began its involvement in the southeast Asian nation of Vietnam by delivering war material for French forces.

The Korean War proved to be only one of many challenges that faced MSTS and the American Merchant Marine.

MSTS and Merchant Ships Participating in Inchon, Korea Invasion

MSTS and Merchant Ships Participating in Hungnam, Korea Redeployment

Merchant Ships Used in Korean War

MSTS Ships Used in Korean War

Illustrations from:
Mast Magazine, January 1951, New York: Mast Magazine Association, 1951
Hospital Ships of World War II: An Illustrated Reference, Emory A. Massman, Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1999
Sealift, October 1969, Military Sea Transportation Service, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1969
SS Meredith Victory photo from Naval Historical Center website http://www.history.navy.mil/index.html
Military Sea Transportation Service, NAVPERS 10829-B, bureau of Naval Personnel, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1962

www.USMM.org is grateful to Professor Salvatore R. Mercogliano for providing this article. Mercogliano is writing his doctoral dissertation about the history of the Merchant Marine, Military Sea Transportation Service and Military Sealift Command.

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MSTS and MSC Operations Other Than War by Salvatore R. Mercogliano
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